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Newt, Mario, Lincoln and Douglas

By Barry Casselman

Last week, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich had a dialogue about the serious issues facing the nation at New York City's Cooper Union in its Great Hall. This is the same site where Abraham Lincoln, a then largely unknown former one-term congressman from Illinois, had made an extraordinary speech in February1860, a speech which made him president of the United States and changed American history.

Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Gingrich in fact spoke from the same wrought-iron podium Mr. Lincoln had used on that snowy and cold night 147 years ago.

As one who helped organize this event, I will not try to make a public judgment about whether it was a success or not, but I can report that the packed house of 900-plus persons seemed clearly to have enjoyed themselves a great deal, and, more importantly, seemed quite provoked by the dialogue that took place, the ideas that came out of it and the "shockingly" civilized tone of the two speakers even as they often sharply disagreed with each other.

Thousands of Americans across the country also watched this event live on a Webcast from Cooper Union, and shortly millions of Americans will be able to observe it on C-SPAN, which taped it for later broadcast. (Anyone who missed the live Webcast can still see it for free in its entirety by going to: and downloading it.) Most of the many press accounts I have seen have highly praised the occasion for its civility, unusual focus of conversation and its often refreshing insights.

Some have gone further, however, and tried to make one of the speakers a winner and the other a loser in the dialogue. I think this misses the point of the first of what is hoped to be a series of dialogues this spring at Cooper Union. I am not suggesting that Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Cuomo can't be, or shouldn't be, subjected to criticism for their ideas expressed at Cooper Union. They are experienced and grown-up politicians and they know that anything they say will be analyzed and criticized by both the media and the public.

The "Spirit of Cooper Union" that was reborn last week, however, was intended more to provoke the 2008 presidential candidates to participate in a new kind of discourse -- one that does not depend on soundbites, insults and defamation -- in the campaign season ahead than to try to define all the issues of 2008. Neither Mr. Cuomo nor Mr. Gingrich are declared candidates for president next year (although Mr. Cuomo generously suggested that Mr. Gingrich should be).

In fact, I would expect that those presidential candidates who have the imagination to see that the gracious offer of a podium by Cooper Union of its Great Hall over the next several weeks and months is a remarkable opportunity to present their candidacies to the American people will give it serious consideration. I would hope that their supporters will urge them to do so. The national news media have already demonstrated they are paying attention to what is going on at Cooper Union, and the spirit of Lincoln's precedent and the Cuomo-Gingrich model ought to make the candidates and their strategists take notice.

There will be a nominee in each party and there will be a new president in January 2009. What the actual presidential candidates say at Cooper Union and everywhere else will be examined closely not only by the press and its pundits, but, more importantly, by the voters.

While there was no winner last week at Cooper Union, if it even in a small way leads to a more valuable discussion of the issues, increased civility in our national political discourse and more understanding of the candidates who seek to be president, then there will be millions of winners as a result -- millions of American voters.

Americans, by their nature and character, are a romantic people, that is, a people who believe in idealism, fairness, compassion and justice. They have learned also, after more than two centuries of upset, struggle and experience, that the world itself is not inherently a romantic place. In this time of war, external challenge and the need for internal transformation, we need to be strong, informed and confident as we meet these challenges.

As a voluntary contribution to the process of electing a new president in 2008 and a thoughtful attempt to enable voters do their duty next year, the "Spirit of Cooper Union" has been put forward. This "Spirit" is the child of both Peter Cooper, America's unsung pioneer industrialist, inventor and first philanthropist and Abraham Lincoln himself, who began the road to his presidency at Cooper Union. It is a child now grown up into a new model created by Newt Gingrich and Mario Cuomo.

As a nation, can we afford to ignore this spirit and waste this opportunity?

Barry Casselman writes about national politics for Preludium News Service.

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